What is a Good Photograph?

Like all artists, photographers develop an eye that searches out the uniqueness of our world that many of us pass by on our way to and fro. What is it about their images that hold our view? What is a great photograph, and how do photographers find and create these images? One way to answer these questions is to listen to photographers whose work has become iconic and how they approach the art of photography.

Edward Burtynsky

The two things artist struggle with, said Edward Burtynsky, is form and content, and there has to be a balance between the two. If you move too much toward content, it becomes reportage. If you move too much in the other direction, the image becomes too formal and reductive; both need to be powerful elements in the picture. His process around a place where he feels something is interesting is to go back frequently at different times, in a different light, and with other equipment, exploring how to best make an image of the place.

Fred Herzog

What you bring to your images is everything about yourself, what you have learned and what you have intellectualized. Fred Herzog is suggesting your ideas of what the world is like are likely what your images are about, and this becomes your style. In other words, style is you. He focused on people in the street, how they dressed, how they interacted, and their immediate environment; this became his style. Ultimately his motivation to create something for himself about what interested him allowed him to see with fresh eyes and make images that were unique and have stood, up till now, the test of time.

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz talks about how you make your photographs unique within the frame of your camera. He warns against making copies of things but instead works towards creating images where ephemeral connections between unrelated things vibrate.

Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh felt photography was an exploration process, where each photograph led to the next, a process of experimentation. He always felt the best photograph would be his next one. As a portrait photographer, he focused on trying to capture the essence of an individual. When I met him, his first instinct was to interview me rather than the other way around, to understand who I was. I came away with the sense that his deep interest in the individual was one of the components of his genius and his ability to make great images.

Gordon Park

Gordon Park “…saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” He goes on to say “What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism by showing the people who suffered most under it.” He was told by Stryker “Go out to a picture show, the department stores, eat in the restaurants, and drugstores. Get to know this place” as a way to engage his photographic eye. This simple advice leads him to become not only a prominent photographer but a writer and film director. So for him, a good photograph was an image that could change a person.

Jay Maisel

Jay Maisel works hard at trying to see things anew by being open to what is in front of him. Does it turn me on, does it interest me, is the question he asks himself. The best advice he got early on in his career was to slow down when you walk until things begin to happen. He also feels in order to understand what makes a good photograph you have to understand what makes good art by immersing yourself in it.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt suggests that the photograph is not about the subject but how you treat the subject. He takes pictures of what he finds unusual and hopes by finding the unusual that, the photograph will communicate something to the viewer. Trying to find moments in time that transcend the subject and place, and to him, that is the magic that comes out of photography.

Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand talks about how photography transforms the real world into something completely different. He looks for unfamiliar things and then considers what he wants to include within a frame. Photography for him is more about a way of being, perhaps a way of exploring the uniqueness of our world. The process of creating photographs is a process of taking himself out of himself, or as puts it “a way of not existing” a process that is freeing for him.

Harry Callahan

Harry Callahan suggests photography is about trying different things, an exploration of the world around him. However, the state of mind he is in when taking photographs does have an impact on his images; when he is not in a good state of mind he finds nothing happens. I think this speaks to the need to slow down and drink in your surroundings while photographing, to not worry so much about time and where you are going but to enjoy the experience.